In this week’s parshah, Yaakov is reunited with his son Yosef after having being separated from him for 22 years. When they met, the pasuk says that Yosef fell on Yaakov’s neck and cried. Rashi quotes a Midrash that says that while Yosef did this, Yaakov did not fall on Yosef’s neck, nor did he kiss him. The Midrash explains that Yaakov was reciting Krias Shema at that moment.
There are several questions that bothered the meforshim regarding this episode. First, why did Yaakov feel the need to recite Krias Shema at this moment? Second, if it was indeed the appropriate time to recite Krias Shema, why did Yosef not recite it? The Taz and the Vilna Gaon (Orach Chaim 61:1) ask why Yaakov did not pause to inquire about Yosef’s wellbeing, since according to the Rosh (Brachos 1:5) one may interrupt the recitation of the Krias Shema to inquire about the wellbeing of one’s father, rebbe, or a king. We find that Yosef was considered a king, for when Yosef came to visit his ill father, Yaakov sat up in bed (Bereishis 48:2) – and Rashi explains that he did so to show respect for the king.
The Gur Aryeh explains that when Yaakov met Yosef it was not the time to say Krias Shema. Rather, the reason that Yaakov was reciting Shema at this time was because it was the custom of tzaddikim that at a moment of simcha they would be mekabel ol malchus shamayim (by reciting the Shema) in an effort to channel that simcha toward accepting the yoke of Hashem. Additionally, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, zt”l, says that the ultimate purpose of the middah of love is to love Hashem. Therefore, when one experiences an overwhelming measure of that middah, he should focus it on his love for Hashem. So, Yaakov recited Shema in order to use the love he was experiencing toward Hashem.
The Taz and the Vilna Gaon answer that the halacha that one may interrupt Krias Shema to inquire about the wellbeing of one’s father, rebbe, or a king does not apply to the first pasuk of Shema – only to the rest of Shema. Since Yaakov was in the middle of the first pasuk of Krias Shema he was unable to interrupt himself, even to inquire about the wellbeing of his son the king.
Others understand that it was indeed the appropriate time to read Shema, and therefore Yaakov recited it. As for Yosef, the Sifsei Chachamim explains that he was exempt from the mitzvah of Krias Shema since he was osek b’mitzvah (involved in a mitzvah) of kibud av (honoring one’s father).
The Brisker Rav explains that the time to recite Shema had already begun and Yosef had already recited Krias Shema. Yaakov had not yet recited Shema, since until this point he was osek b’mitzvah of following the commandment of Hashem to descend to Mitzrayim. At this moment he had just arrived in Mitzrayim, and thus he was now obligated to recite Shema – which he did. While he was still reciting the Shema, Yosef approached.
Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin suggests that throughout all the years that Yaakov and Yosef were separated, Yaakov was unable to have complete kavanah while reciting the words in Krias Shema, “u’vechal nafshecha” (which mean that one must be willing to sacrifice his own life for Hashem). This was because Yaakov knew that he was promised that he would have 12 sons that would all be shevatim. Since one was missing, he was unable to wholeheartedly say that he would give up his life while still not yet fully complete. Now that he saw that all of his sons were alive, he could once again recite those words with total sincerity. Therefore Yaakov recited Shema at the moment that he met Yosef.
With this explanation Rav Yehoshua Leib answers another question. In the very next pasuk Yaakov exclaims “amusah hapa’am – now I can die.” The Gemara, in Brachos 19, says al tiftach peh lasatan (one should not open his mouth to the satan). In other words, do not make statements that invite trouble. Why would Yaakov make this strange statement? Rav Yehoshua Leib says that Yaakov was explaining why he recited Krias Shema at this point: because he could now have complete kavanah, and if it were necessary he would wholeheartedly give up his life for Hashem.